Tim Pawlenty calls me from the Minneapolis airport. All afternoon, he’s been living in travel hell. His flight to New Hampshire was cancelled due to thunderstorms over the Twin Cities, so after parking his car, he scrambled to book a new ticket. The security line was a nightmare. Now he’s at his gate, but as heavy rain pelts the tarmac, the boarding time blinking above the waiting area is a taunt, not a promise.
It’s just another day in the life of Mitt Romney’s workhorse.
“I get the drill,” Pawlenty says, as he sits in the terminal. “[Romney] doesn’t need people lurking. He needs people working, moving the needle for the campaign. My best value is to show up and be an advocate for him in areas where he can’t be.”
It’s Thursday and Pawlenty is on his way to join the presumptive Republican nominee on a bus tour. He regularly appears with Romney on the trail, but this joint stump stop is not a typical work day. It’s the little stuff — conference calls with reporters, private fundraising receptions, early-morning appearances on MSNBC and Fox News — that fills his schedule.
A year ago, Pawlenty was making weekly trips to the Granite State as a top presidential contender — a former Minnesota governor with a legitimate shot at the nomination. But last August, that dream faded in the Iowa cornfields, thanks to a distant third-place finish in the Ames straw poll. These days, his job makes him more reminiscent of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air – a middle-aged frequent flier — than a candidate for national office. His entourage is gone. The hovering staffers have moved on, as have the Minnesota state troopers.
It’s just Tim and his carry-on suitcase. And he’s fine with that.
Around Romney’s Boston headquarters, Pawlenty’s willingness to go anywhere — attending any event, however tedious — has won him the trust and admiration of Romney loyalists. Romney, for his part, appreciates Pawlenty’s disciplined, low-key style. He has encouraged his aides to use Pawlenty, employing him as a senior surrogate and, behind the scenes, as a political lieutenant. In the terms of Pawlenty’s favorite sport — hockey — he’s a defenseman. He rarely touches the puck, but when it comes his way, he’s a savvy shot-blocker.
“Pawlenty basically does whatever the campaign requests, no questions asked. That’s pretty rare in presidential politics, especially among politicians of his standing,” says one Romney adviser. A member of Romney’s inner circle echoes that sentiment: “Out of all of Romney’s primary competitors, he has emerged — and there’s really no argument — as the best supporter. He’s tireless.”
Pawlenty’s status as a valued Romney hand doesn’t surprise longtime GOP observers, most of whom remember his persistent surrogate work for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. But his own rationale is more of an open question. Some politicos suspect that he’s angling for the vice-presidential slot or a cabinet post, or, perhaps, simply biding time until he runs for Senate against Democrat Al Franken in 2014. Others also see his hustle as a way of keeping up appearances for another presidential run, even after his disappointing showing this time around.
Of course, Pawlenty’s friends and former staffers assure me that there is no Machiavellian motive behind his eager barnstorming. He’s out of office, they say, but at 51 years old, it should not be a surprise that he still has the political bug. Sure, they add, he’s serving on a slew of corporate boards, most of them in Minnesota, but money doesn’t drive him. He still lives in the same house in Eagan, Minn., and he still owns the same Ford Escape. “This is a guy who wants to be in the game, working hard to stay in the game,” explains one former Pawlenty aide.
Pawlenty has been actively crisscrossing the country for Romney since his campaign’s disappointing end — and he often does so under the radar. Last month, he trekked to the Oklahoma GOP convention to shake hands with supporters. A couple of weeks ago, he was in North Carolina, talking up Romney at a Republican luncheon. Other stops have included Tennessee, Michigan, and Iowa. He’s done events by himself, and with fellow Romney surrogates, such as John Bolton. When he’s home, he joins the talk-radio circuit from his living room.
The Romney campaign likes that Pawlenty does more than just show up and smile. If Pawlenty is at a state convention where Ron Paul supporters are bashing Romney, he’ll jump in and defend the nominee. Romney advisers noticed Pawlenty’s mix of grittiness and composure early on in the primary, when he was throwing political punches at their boss without raising his voice. Once he endorsed Romney, the decision to put that skill to work was a no-brainer: Within a couple of months, he was in the center of the primary’s post-debate spin rooms, calmly sparring with bloggers, print scribes, and TV pundits.
Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser, says Pawlenty fits the Romney campaign’s brand, which values effectiveness, not flashiness. “Tim’s comfortable with everybody,” he says. “He’s also always on message. He can go on TV and handle the tough questions without making mistakes. That’s the ideal for a presidential campaign. You need guys you can count on. There are many surrogates out there, but few error-free surrogates.”